Students protesting New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s speech at Brown University last week ultimately got their wish. After half an hour of students shouting through Kelly’s talk, administrators decided to cancel the lecture.
The students who booed Kelly off the stage strongly opposed his use of the controversial stop-and-frisk policy in New York, and some claimed that his treatment of racial minorities in New York warranted being silenced during the lecture. However, many audience members expressed disappointment that they were denied the chance to hear Kelly explain his views and the opportunity to engage with him in a planned Q&A session after the talk.
The events at Brown were an embarrassment for the school and prompted the university’s president to send a letter to the community in which she called the incident “a sad day for the Brown community.”
The actions of these protesters went against the basic values of colleges and universities. Institutes of higher education are meant to be places where ideas can be freely exchanged and controversial issues can be intelligently debated. Students have the right to voice their opinions, but they shouldn’t be allowed to infringe on other people’s rights to speak, listen and engage in dialogue. Shouting over people while they try to speak is not the way to deal with people who have different viewpoints. People change minds by participating in thoughtful and intelligent conversations, such as the ones that would have happened had Kelly been allowed to speak and take questions from audience members who disagreed with him.
Nothing valuable is accomplished by refusing to let a controversial speaker talk or preventing others from hearing his thoughts. Brown’s administrators should have punished the students who were denying Kelly the chance to speak freely, instead of canceling the event and thereby denying the rest of the community the chance to partake in a meaningful discussion.
Wellesley, like Brown, holds the free exchange of ideas as one of its core values, and this becomes increasingly important for members of the community to remember as we continue campuswide conversations on big issues like divestment and the future of the Wellesley-Peking University partnership. In just the past few weeks, representatives of Fossil Free Wellesley discussed their divestment proposal with members of the Board of Trustees and faculty members have debated issues related to Xia Yeliang’s firing from Peking University. These topics are heavy and provoke strong emotional reactions from people, as they should. But when the issues are big and the stakes are high, it becomes even more important for people to listen to what others have to say and not drown out opposing views.
If controversial speakers like Ray Kelly come to Wellesley, let’s hope that Wellesley students behave better than the students at Brown and that the administration lives up to our mission by allowing these speakers to talk. And in the meantime, students, faculty and staff should continue to talk about the big issues we face and enhance public discourse and private opinion by listening to new viewpoints.